What do you know about Sicilian?
If you are a passionate Italophile, the odds are you have been faced with the complex topic of “the languages and dialects of Italy.” If you have ever traveled to Sicily or you are planning to, you might have wondered if Sicilian people will understand you or you will understand them.
I am an Italian and Sicilian speaker (although my Italian is more robust than my Sicilian) and in this article, I will
- shed light on the topic, “Is Sicilian a Language?”
- bring you examples of how Sicilian is different from Italian
- give a few recommendations for learning Sicilian
I wish I could integrate more information about the other minority languages and dialects spoken in Italy. However, as a native Sicilian, I think it makes much more sense to share my first-hand experience as a polyglot, a linguist, and an Italian teacher in Sicily living in between Sicilian and Italian.
Let’s start with the first dilemma…
Is Sicilian a language or a dialect?
Sicilian is a language that has many dialects spoken in different parts of the island. That’s why, at the moment, it is kind of hard to find a definition of standard Sicilian. The good news is that the Cademia Siciliana is doing a great job normalizing the Sicilian orography and spreading Sicilian’s awareness across the island and the world.
And so, is Sicilian a language or a dialect?
The widespread misconception about Sicilian Language being a dialect derives from the fact that most people don’t know what makes a dialect different from a language.
What is an Italian dialect? What is a language?
An Italian dialect is a variation of the Italian Language, and so, we can say that it lays its roots in the Italian language. The most famous dialects in Italy are, undoubtedly, the “Romano or “Romanesco.” These are the dialects, respectively spoken in Rome and Central Italy.
So, a dialect is an alteration of Italian.
Let’s see an example:
English: what are you doing?
Italian: che fai?
Roman Dialect: che stai a fa?
Sicilian is considered a language because it is not a variation of Italian but an evolution of the Latin language, with massive influences of Ancient Greek, Arabic, Spanish, French, and Catalan. Quite a unique combination, isn’t it?
So, why many people, including Sicilians, think of Sicilian has a dialect? In a nutshell: prejudices. For decades Sicilian has been considered a dialect spoken only by uneducated people or peasants.
Is Sicilian Language different from Italian?
Yes, it is, just like the other romance languages (French, Spanish, or Portuguese) are different from Italian. The Sicilian grammar shares the same fundamentals as the other Latin language and, in my opinion, has a closer relation to Spanish grammar.
For example, Sicilian does not use the “passato prossimo” like Italian, but the “passato remoto (the historical past)” to speak about the immediate past.
English: I did / I made
Italian: io ho fatto (passato prossimo)
Sicilian: Jo fici (passato remoto)
Spanish: Yo hice (Spanish passato remoto/ preterito indefinido)
That’s just one example, but I could make a very long list of parallelisms and shared vocabulary between the Spanish and Sicilian.
Sicilian stems from Latin and has Greek, Arabic, French, Catalan, Spanish, and German influences.
The reason for such a unique combination goes back to our history. Several different civilizations conquered and settled in Sicily in our current time, leaving legacies in the Sicilian arts, culture, and language. These influences make Sicilian different from standard Italian.
Let’s see an example of how Sicilian is different than Italian
English: where do you work?
Italian: dove lavori?
Roman Dialect: ‘ndo stai a lavora’?
Sicilian: Unni travagghi?
Let’s analyze the sentence…
- Unni means “dove/where” and can be associated with the French “où“ meaning where.
- Travagghiari is the verb meaning to work and shares the same root with the Spanish (trabajar), the French (travailler), the Portuguese (trabalhar).
Examples of other influences
English – a quarrel
Sicilian – na sciarra
Arabic – siarr
Italian – un litigio
English – to blink
Sicilian – pappadiari
Spanish – parpadear
Italian – sabattere le palpebre
English – tissue
Sicilian – muccaturi
French – mouchoir
Italian – fazzoletto
English – to kid around
Sicilian – babbiari
Greek – babazein
Italian – scherzare
Is Sicilian a live language?
Sicilian is recognized as a minority language by Unesco. With over 4 million speakers of “Sicilianu” in Sicily, Southern Italy (Calabria and Apulia), and in the world. Sicilian is not considered an endangered language but a “vulnerable one”, since it has been facing pressure from Italian over the last century.
No surprise, Sicilian has been “italianized” over the last decades. The language is not (yet) an official language in Sicily and thus is not taught in schools.
However, being a Sicilian and polyglot simultaneously, I have seen a revival of the Sicilian Language in the last few years.
Both the Cademia Siciliana and some brilliant polyglots and language students are doing a great job by shedding light on Sicilian’s study as a minority language.
Where is Sicilian spoken?
Sicilian is also spoken out of Italy in many Sicilian immigrant communities in Canada, Germany, Argentina, the USA, or Australia. It is not rare to bump into third-generation Sicilian-American having a good grasp of the language or being completely fluent, who inherited and learned the language from her ancestors.
Funny fact, the Sicilian spoken abroad in the immigrant communities uses many words and expressions that have been forgotten in the contemporary Sicilian. It’s a lot of fun listening to an old Canadian nonno speaking a much older and purer version of Sicilian than my family here in Sicily does.
Are Sicilians bilingual?
Yes and no. The official and most spoken language is Italian. Italian is the language we use at school, at work, and in the vast majority of everyday situations. So if you are asking yourself, will I be able to understand Sicilian people? My answer is YES. We do speak Italian. Sicilian is used in informal settings, for jokes o to emphasize something ironically. The only people who might not talk proper Italian (very few at this time) would live in rural areas and have probably been born in the first half of the 20th century!
Do I need to know Sicilian to travel to Sicily? Or do I need to speak the local dialects when traveling or living in Italy?
No, I would generally argue that learning Italian is a great idea if you plan an extended stay in Italy. However, Italians would not expect any foreigner to speak the local language or dialect.
But you know… hearing someone from far away speaking the local language or dialect would make the day of a native speaker, as happened to me whenever I spoke Sicilian with a foreigner. So, why don’t you try to pick up a few words in dialects before your trips?
How can I learn Sicilian?
As a minority language, there is no great deal of learning material or textbooks as for the other Romance languages.
However, you shouldn’t be put off by the scarcity of “conventional material.”
The Sicilian culture is pervasive, exciting and rooted in the island. There is a wealth of songs, books, and online material that serve as authentic material for your Sicilian learning routine.
Wikipedia is an incredible source for Sicilian learners as you can use the many translated articles as a free learning resource.
On Glosbe.com, you can find Sicilian – Italian or English – Italian dictionary.
HELPFUL RESOURCES TO LEARN SICILIAN ON YOUR OWN
Disclaimer: I wrote this article due to my experience with Sicilian in Sicily and within the international community of polyglots who decided to embrace the Sicilian journey. There are undoubtedly people or academics who can better and, in more scientific terms, describe the state of the Sicilian Language today.